Review by Sean McQuaid
For all his Bohemian quirks, your prim and proper prattler is a bit of a square at heart. Heck, in the old days I was practically a young male version of Margaret Dumont (the society stiff from the Marx Brothers movies), forever aghast at the world's innumerable improprieties.
A couple of decades later, I'm far less easily shocked—more jaded or more tolerant, maybe both. Capable of watching assorted modern cable TV dramas without too many palpitations, anyhow.
That being said, I'm still not a fan of crassly bawdy humour or gratuitous profanity in my entertainment, and that caveat is my one real quibble with the largely excellent ABigWHAT sketch comedy show starring Benton Hartley, Olivia King, Cameron MacDonald, Jacob Rollwage and Morgan Wagner.
Granted, this is coming from a guy who'd rather watch Wayne & Shuster than Family Guy—"bit of a square," like I said—but I think it's possible to be subversive and weird and funny without working blue. The original Muppet Show springs to mind, in that spirit—freaky enough that the show's comically upright Sam the Eagle (possibly my spirit animal) could denounce it, but nearly always tasteful.
Putting things in perspective, this complaint is intended more as an asterisk than an accusation—ABigWHAT features adroit, funny, laudably inventive sketch comedy, and I'd recommend it to anyone who isn't easily offended (stay home, zombie Margaret Dumont)—but however hard I laughed at much of the show, part of me regrets that there's quite so much cussing and off-colour gags in the mix. Especially since a troupe this intelligent and creative could probably sustain their comedic stride just fine without those crutches.
Mind you, "edgy" humour's been the sketch comedy tradition in Charlottetown for well over a decade now. Off Stage Theatre's long-running 1990s sketch comedy gem Annekenstein gave way to the similarly enduring Sketch 22 show in the 2000s, and while the two shows had personnel in common (notably accomplished funnyman Rob MacDonald, Cameron's dad), the latter show typically worked way more blue than the former ever did.
ABigWHAT owes quite a bit to Sketch 22 in terms of both tone and format (like its predecessor it combines live sketches with filmed video segments), but arguably improves the formula with stronger characters, often superior acting and a more unified, coherent show.
The most familiar faces in the cast are Cameron MacDonald and Ben Hartley, both Popalopalots improv veterans, in addition to the hardworking Hartley appearing in scads of other shows (seriously, he's like the "Where's Waldo" of local low-budget theatre). The duo complement each other, style-wise. Hartley plays pretty straight more often than not, which both plays to his strengths and gives his oft-wackier scene partners a sturdy foil, while the frequently freaky MacDonald might be PEI theatre's most weirdly gifted comic savant since Sketch 22's Graham Putnam.
Jacob Rollwage falls somewhere in the middle of that Hartley-MacDonald comedic spectrum—a more distinctively strange comedic presence than Hartley, not quite as adaptably versatile as MacDonald—but the strongest standouts of this show might actually be distaff duo King and Wagner. Both from a musical theatre background (including roles in Anne & Gilbert), they are charming, likeable performers with impressively solid acting chops, elevating whatever scene they're in whether their parts are large or small, oddball or straight.
The show's video segments in particular reinforce that impression, making it easier to see and hear all the shadings and nuances that King and Wagner bring to their roles—like in "Basement Amazement," where King's nimbly expressive face conveys hapless webcaster Candy Furlong's amusingly pathetic emotional beats with crystal clarity even when she's not talking, and in which Wagner's darkly downbeat cameo as MacDonald's "matron" somehow makes an immeasurably creepy weirdo played perfectly by MacDonald even scarier.
Both very funny, King and Wagner tend to give somewhat more grounded, relatably human performances than the show's leading laugh machine MacDonald—like Hartley, they do a lot to balance out the ensemble.
The strength and diversity of that ensemble might be part of why ABigWHAT already seems capable of something Sketch 22 seldom achieved: generating concepts and characters with legs. That's partly due to how uneven Sketch 22 could be—its try anything, swing-for-the-fences approach spawned more than a few outright duds sprinkled among its comedic gems—but even their best bits, brilliant sketches like "Atlantis Regional Municipality" and the Atticus Finch game show, tended to be one-and-done exercises that didn't necessarily lend themselves to recurring characters.
ABigWHAT, by comparison, features some memorably distinctive and funny characters who seem to have plenty of life in them beyond a single sketch. The show's "Sighants" video shorts about bizarre fringe pseudo-science are a fun recurring segment, for instance. MacDonald is great in a drily understated role as the monocled intellectual host of these ludicrous interludes, which build to a satisfyingly big sci-fi climax late in the show, one of several recurring threads over the course of the evening. And while "Basement Amazement" seems to have been meant as a one-shot, it left me wanting lots more adventures of King's adorkable misfit Candy Furlong.
Like any sketch comedy show, the humour is somewhat hit-or-miss—for every "Superfly" that soars with wildly quirky nonsense there's "A Day at the Office" that overstays its welcome—and the language and content are a bit on the salty side for more delicate viewers. But there's a lot to like in this commendably clever, endearingly energetic show, Margaret Dumont be darned.
ABigWHAT's summer season is over as of publication time, but for a fine sample of their comedy wares, check out this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHgkts-j9ig